MedImmune, AstraZeneca’s biologics division, is no more. The pharmaceutical giant announced last year that the name would be retired as part of a research and development restructuring.
Before MedImmune became an AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) business unit, it was a standalone biologics company. In 2007, AstraZeneca paid $15.2 billion to acquire the biotech, which it integrated with a prior biologics acquisition, Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT). Jane Osbourn saw those changes firsthand. She was part of CAT when it was acquired and later rose through the ranks to become an R&D executive at the MedImmune division within AstraZeneca.
Osbourn, who is chairwoman of the UK BioIndustry Association, has left AstraZeneca but Xconomy caught up with her during the recent BIO Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany. She talked about her memories of working at CAT, the integration with the larger MedImmune, and her observations about the state of the biotech industry. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Xconomy: Cambridge Antibody Technology was where you started, the guys who invented Humira, the world’s best-selling drug. Having gone from a small biotech, can you tell us what the transition was like?
Jane Osbourn: The acquisition by AZ come out of a very, very good clinical, scientific collaboration in the respiratory space. We had actually been working with AZ for a couple of years before acquisition. Fast forward to 2006, we were in a position where we needed to think about the long-term future of the company. We had built this genuinely scientific-based relationship with AZ. It felt like the acquisition was a sort of natural next step. That would give us the opportunity to build oncology portfolios, really drive patient benefit. It was fairly seamless. In the first year when CAT was acquired, AZ were quite hands off around allowing us to carry on with our biotech structures, gave us funding, gave us advice when we needed it, it was very productive.
X: That was a time when a lot of pharma companies realized biologics were the real deal. A year after they made the CAT acquisition, they spent $16 billion on MedImmune.
JO: The acquisition of MedImmune was interesting. What we had at CAT was some good technology, some good ideas. We didn’t have manufacturing capabilities. We didn’t have a portfolio in infectious disease. We didn’t have things on the market. The fit between CAT and Medimmune was really nice because they’d actually gotten established products in the market. In 2006, 2007, biologics manufacturing capacity was a real issue.
It made really good sense for CAT and Medimmune to combine forces. What CAT was very good at was optimizing antibodies, selecting them from large libraries. Medi in the US had actually developed interesting technology around half-life engineering, engineering the other end of the antibody. When you put all our capabilities in biopharmaceutical process development together—we were world leading in being able to produce developable anitbodies—it was a really good scientific fit. What we also had with the team at Medimmune was a really good cultural fit.
X: The fact that you had American biotech and UK biotech, was there any tension?
JO: There’s always a storming phase when you put teams together. What we had to do at that time was really, really overcommunicate. The key was understanding each other’s science. If we could do that, and understand where we could be of mutual benefit, then that was the way forward. AZ were very enabling of those conversations. There was a period of about six months where were testing out the science. I was flying over to the US a lot, and vice versa. When it came to making decisions about where capabilities would sit, how we would put things together, we actually managed to come up with some quite creative solutions for that.
X: Can you describe one of those solutions?
JO: We were sharing technologies where we needed to…. but also sharing the pipelines. We had pipelines that were slightly overlapping, but not actually that much for a couple of biotechs. We all knew that we needed to build on oncology. One of the things that was really fundamental was a really long term, shared, bold ambition. Great credit to Bahija Jallal, who was head of R&D at that point. We set a goal of one biologic entity a year from 2016. We looked at what we had, we worked out where we could start delivering, how we were going to do that and we sort of worked back from there.
X: Did the various teams stop thinking I’m a CAT person or I’m a Medi person. Or is there still a sense of people hanging on to biologic heritage?
JO: A bit of both. You’ve got to work at it. The CAT UK culture was very, very collaborative and quite sort of modest, actually. We had to make sure we were explaining our science in a way that was balanced. And likewise our colleagues in the US were really science focused and really collaborative, but possibly a bit more later-stage collaboration. We built more academic collaborations.
X: You’ve now stepped down from Medimmune. You mentioned when CAT got acquired, it was a situation where something needed to happen. It was a tough time for all biotechs. You’re now going into little biotech companies as chair, or as chief science officer. What is the state of the UK biotech industry at the moment?
JO: I see a lot of great science in the UK. Understanding the capabilities of how you put them together is what we’re doing. I’m chair of Mogrify, which is a cell therapy company. I’m seeing lots of interesting technology ideas coming through the UK that have potentially quite profound applications. The state of ideas and innovation in the UK is very strong.
Going through the funding side of it, I think we’ve done pretty well at finding that seed funding and early funding. How that will evolve in terms of longer-term funding, I think we do have to make sure that we capitalize and invest in some of the early companies to the level where you can compete in a global market. It’s been really nice, the level of support across the UK ecosystem for startup ideas and innovation. Since I’ve left Medi-AZ, the community has been hugely generous in offers of advice, money. We really need to stay confident and be sure we’re asking for enough money to succeed in the right way.